New HK coach Paul John quietly confident after Hong Kong Sevens draw
Hong Kong’s new rugby sevens coach Paul John made a dash from the airport to the competition’s draw on Monday night and declared himself quietly optimistic as he prepares for a baptism of fire at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens next month.
The former Wales scrum-half wrapped up duties as assistant coach at Cardiff Blues at the weekend before jumping on a flight to his new home.
He barely had time to don a Hong Kong jersey – presumably he hasn’t been measured yet for his Hong Kong Rugby Union blazer – before attending the draw, which saw Hong Kong pitted against Chile, Sri Lanka and Namibia in pool F of the World Sevens Series Qualifier tournament.
“I got in literally an hour ago,” said John, who takes over from Gareth Baber, who left to lead Olympic champions Fiji. “Dropped my bags and came here. Straight into it, but that’s fine, I knew that was going to be the case.
“I think it’s a good draw, though we’ve got a really good side in the group as well. We’ve got Chile in the group and they’ve performed well on the [main] series the last two weeks, so that’ll be a good test, but it’ll be good to get some tough competition early on and get difficult games straight from the start.”
Chile have played the last two rounds of the World Series as invitees in Las Vegas and Vancouver, getting tough tests against Vancouver winners England, series leaders South Africa, USA, and only losing narrowly to Samoa and Kenya.
Germany and Spain are top seeds in the other two pools and are the other likely obstacles as Hong Kong chase the dream of joining the big boys on the World Series. The qualifier tournament winner is promoted to the main series for next season.
“Looking at the way it’s come out probably Chile are the main threat – they’re coming off two weeks on the main series so they’ve got really, really good preparation for the tournament,” said John, who has been monitoring his team’s matches and training sessions on video from Cardiff since being appointed.
“There’s a lot of good sides in the tournament though. I know a lot about Germany because when I was with Wales we used to go European tournaments and Germany have been getting stronger and stronger over the past two or three years.
“There’s a lot of resources going into sevens at the moment all over the world, so these tournaments are tough.”
As Wales sevens coach, John led them to the World Cup title in 2009, but says their epic final against Fiji at the Hong Kong Sevens in 2013 almost matched that achievement. Wales looked set to beat the Hong Kong Sevens specialists before Fiji mounted a stunning comeback.
John hopes his new team can similarly punch above their weight when the Sevens kick off on April 7.
“There’s a lot of similarities. We did start to have in Wales then a group of core players of about 18 able to train with us all the time. There’s 18, 20 boys in the core programme here and it’s just getting that consistency and high-quality competition.
“I think if you get that then the programme can kick on again.”
John will barely have time to unpack, as he takes the team to the Borneo Sevens on Thursday for his first look at them in the flesh.
“I’ve been watching footage of training and I’ve seen all the games from the [recent] Fiji trip,” he added.
“I know the boys I think – well I don’t ‘know’ them yet but I’ve watched them in training and it’s been looking really good over the last few weeks.
“I just can’t wait to get started.”
The main draw sees Vancouver winners England up against Australia in a clash sure to get the fans jumping, while perennial favourites Fiji will have to take on the might of New Zealand in the pool stage.
On-fire South Africa, who have won four of the six tournaments this season have what looks an easy ride to the knockout stage, while the USA, unlucky not to beat Fiji in the bronze medal match in Vancouver, will also be happy with their pool.